The Steward’s Fear: Refresh

Cardboard of the Rings recently discussed burnout and asked: is it a bad thing? If you were in a group and other members of that group were dependant on you always being there to get their particular gaming fix, such as needing seven bodies for Diplomacy or six for Dune, then I can see how it might be a problem. In a solo game though, just go away and do something else. Since the last post I immersed myself in the Peloponnesian War where I had the pleasure of getting feedback from the designer, Mark Herman. More exciting than a much-ballyhooed event on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the game that turned out to be 18 minutes of Nate French, MJ Newman and Caleb Grace doing a spot of freeform jazz based on their memories of the game? Yes, touching the hem of Mark Herman’s cloak was far more exciting.

I’m being bitchy, especially when you consider why I was suffering from ‘burnout’ after playing The Steward’s Fear: I spent many hours with what is an absolutely brilliant quest. It is not an exaggeration to say I played the quest, including scoops, over a hundred times as I endeavoured to uncover its secrets. At the heart of the brilliance is the separate Underworld encounter deck. A mere 12 cards at the start of the quest, the initial instinct is to shy away from it as it feels like a variant of that most evil of gameplay mechanisms: Surge. Clear an Underworld location and you might see multiple enemies, all of which can be devastating in the wrong circumstances. Zealous Traitor, for example, is like a latter-day version of that most evil of treacheries: The Necromancer’s Reach. If you have any form of encounter deck manipulation, such as Firyal who was present in my build, it’s tempting to try to move past any card that takes advantage of drawing Underworld cards.

Tempting, and quite wrong. Eventually – and by ‘eventually’ I mean many, many plays if you are particularly slow on the uptake – you realise you need to confront the Underworld deck head-on. Because you can’t quest in the normal fashion, you will most likely need the three Clue cards in other to make progress. Without them, the first two quest cards will take eight rounds to clear, and that’s assuming you don’t get False Lead to force you to skip questing. Having the enemies of the Underworld deck swarming around you as you make progress, in addition to the five copies of Underworld Dissident in the regular encounter deck, makes for a delightfully chaotic experience. Only one of the enemies – Umbar Assassin – is truly brutul but they all have abilities that mess around with you and keep you on your toes.

This quest taught me something that will no doubt have good deck-building types slapping their forehead and rolling their eyes at my stupidity – you need to be killing things on a regular basis. Location lock is often referenced as a problem to be overcome, and it’s definitely a problem here and is the reason why this is not the best quest for true solo play, what with you only revealing one card each round and this finding ourself without a location and unable to make progress. I’ve often been tempted to try and dash past enemies, keeping them in the staging area or blocking them repeatedly with Beregond who has been equipped with various readying remedies, and once again it would be quite wrong to give into this temptation. If you are going to embrace the Underworld deck to unearth those oh-so-precious Clues, you better be ready to face the nine enemies that will be thrown at you, and while Boromir is good you need him to be Boromir packing some heat if you are regularly going to send those enemies to the bosom of the Villain who sent them.

tl;dr:

  • mulligan for a weapon for Boromir and Elrond/Miner of the Iron Hills/A Test of Will/Power of Orthanc in order to neuter the threat of Local Trouble
  • Boromir needs to be killing something every round, hence the desirability of that weapon in the opening hand
  • use Firyal to take out any surge cards when you get the chance
  • brace yourself for the Villain card, e.g. don’t clear 3B if your fighting player (Tactics, in this case) is the first as Daughter of Berúthiel would attack then return the the staging area
  • further to that last point, do not be tempted to use Éowyn for any other purpose than the Villain

It’s been so long since I did the Quest post that I’ve lost the impetus to keep writing about the mechanics of the scenario, which is a bit of a nuisance and something I’ll have to bear in mind for the future, i.e. keep all the posts close together. However, that’s an after-the-fact justification for simply wanting to get to rank such an obvious high achiever. In the immediate aftermath of the 100+ plays, there was no question that this was the best quest so far in the game. Even with all the time to contemplate it, it still ranks as the finest exemplar of the game-as-puzzle, and the primary satisfaction (for me) to be had from The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game is the beating the puzzle using the card pool at your disposal. Decks kept on being tweaked between plays, and no matter how far I got off the reservation – at one point Grimbeorn the Old and Na’asiyah were the Tactics heroes – it never felt futile or frustrating. You’d learn something new after every play, which would sometimes be the wrong thing, such as thinking that Tactics heroes whose ability requires the spending of 1 resource, like Grimbeorn the Old and Na’asiyah, were a good idea. The failure was part of the fun though, and I had an immense amount of fun with The Steward’s Fear.

Two things hold it back from the very top. The hamstringing of willpower as a game mechanism, by virtue of only being able to place 1 progress every round, is a bugbear, and not just because it can cause location lock. A nine or ten rounds playthrough because you can’t progress fast enough can become a bit of a chore, and while small encounter decks are objectively a good thing having to reshuffle the deck on a frequent basis is not. That’s not a contradiction, by the way. Seeing each card every play – good. Seeing those same cards again – bad. Getting the balance right is what separates the good from the great. The other reason it doesn’t get to the top is that it isn’t as evocative as the quest that is currently sat at the top, Foundations of Stone. I gushed there about how the abstractions necessary for the puzzle to work blended so well with the story being told, such as how:

When the players get Washed Away!, they lose all physical attachments like armour and weapons while keeping all the ephemeral ones like Light of Valinor or Sword that was Broken – it’s a ceremonial sword so would have been stashed in your backpack, right? The enemies and treacheries that you have already encountered are swept along with you to the new location, but you leave the locations behind.

The feeling of opening trapdoors only to make an Unwelcome Discovery works well in The Steward’s Fear. Just not as well as the oppressive sense of being in a tomb surrounded by Nameless Things works in Foundations of Stone, which is why the new arrival in the Halls of Mandos has to settle (!) for second place.

It’s been an intense time for our heroes, and I’m sure they’d welcome some quiet time in the sylvan environs of The Drúadan Forest. What could possibly be wrong with that?

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